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Top 10 Ways To Escape From North Korea

by Jeffrey Morris
fact checked by Jamie Frater

North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in the world. The country officially restricts communication between its people and outsiders. Foreign media cannot operate without government permission, and visiting tourists cannot interact freely with North Korean citizens.

In mid-2017, the US banned its people from traveling to North Korea after a tragedy involving US tourist Otto Warmbier. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for a seemingly minor offense, inexplicably fell into a coma there, and died shortly upon his return to the US.

Life in North Korea is terrible and difficult. Its citizens are being subjected to escalating levels of murder, rape, torture, and hunger on a daily basis. The lack of food is so widespread that there is severe stunting in children.

About 25 percent of the population has no access to proper health care and 20 percent lack proper sanitation and clean water facilities. Human right abuses are so common in North Korea that every ordinary citizen there has experienced it at least once in his or her lifetime.

The government is a dictatorship that prevents its people from traveling out of the country. Anyone who defects from North Korea is considered a traitor and will face severe consequences, including imprisonment and forced labor, if ever brought back to the country.

Even so, North Korean citizens have never given up the hope of leaving the country. In fact, several have tried and succeeded. These are the top 10 ways to escape from North Korea.

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10 The Demilitarized Zone

On the Korean peninsula, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is a region that separates North Korea from South Korea. It runs for about 240 kilometers (150 mi) and is heavily fortified on either side. Both countries keep a large contingent of troops there.

Making an escape through the DMZ is very dangerous for a civilian because there are land mines around the whole region as well as trigger-happy North Korean soldiers who are too willing to riddle a defector’s body with bullets.[1] The irony, however, is that North Korean soldiers who are supposed to guard their section of the border have taken this escape route safely in the past.

South Korea usually grants citizenship to North Korean defectors. This ensures that the defectors do not need to return to North Korea, where they would be executed.

9 The Yellow Sea

Photo credit: The Guardian

The Yellow Sea is a maritime boundary between North Korea and South Korea, but it is also an easy, short route between the two nations. Each country claims a portion of the sea as part of its territory.

The only danger with trying to escape via this route is that it is heavily guarded by naval forces from both countries. The North Korean navy will not hesitate to kill or capture any defector.[2]

There is, however, a ray of hope in escaping through the Yellow Sea. In the past, several good swimmers have easily made their way to South Korea from North Korea simply by swimming this relatively short distance. No matter how eager the North Korean navy is, it is difficult to spot a swimmer in the sea.

8 The Sea Of Japan

Photo credit: The Guardian

The Sea of Japan, a common maritime boundary between North Korea and Japan, is also bordered by South Korea and Russia. This is a good route for North Korean defectors who are hoping to leave the isolated country.

The main difficulty: A boat is required to successfully cross into Japan or South Korea. Also, the trip to either country via the Sea of Japan is a long one.[3]

However, there is hope for a defector as several people have made it in the past using this route. Rather than deporting North Korean defectors, Japan gives them the opportunity to safely continue their trip to South Korea.

7 The North Korea–China Border

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Several North Korean defectors have taken advantage of their country’s shared border with China to escape from their isolated and repressive homeland. To travel from North Korea to China safely, a defector must collaborate with a Chinese person or someone who is well acquainted with the route in order to escape detection by the Chinese border patrol.

The bad news is that China is very hostile toward North Korean migrants. China collaborates with North Korea on this issue and frequently deports defectors to their homeland, where they will face execution or imprisonment in forced labor camps.[4]

6 The Olympic Team

Although North Korea is isolated, it has an Olympic team like almost every nation of the world. Being a member of the Olympic team is a win-win situation for North Koreans.

Besides enabling athletes to enjoy the facilities of a democratic country, team membership presents a great opportunity to escape the tyrannical regime back home. The North Korean government rewards those who win medals but punishes athletes and coaches who come back with nothing.[5]

This is enough reason for athletes to defect from the regime. Although it could be relatively difficult for an average North Korean to defect, it is quite easy for an Olympic athlete. Although all North Korean athletes are closely monitored during international competitions, an escape would be quite easy because the countries that host the Olympic Games are usually democratic nations.

5 The Soccer Team

Photo credit: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

North Korea had a soccer team that qualified for the World Cup in 2010. However, the team did not win a single game at the group stage. After conceding 12 goals in three matches, North Korea dropped out of the tournament.

Despite the humiliation suffered by the team during the games, the North Korean government added insult to injury in its usual style by shaming the players at a public event in Pyongyang. Then the coach of the soccer team was forced to quit his job and was reassigned to the construction industry.[6]

There is hardly any good news that comes out of North Korea. The only great thing about being a member of the North Korean soccer team is that there would be several opportunities to escape from the regime during international competitions.

4 Foreign Labor Mission

Photo credit: The Guardian

North Korea has a state-controlled foreign labor mission that enables the government to earn money by sending its citizens to work in countries like China and Russia. Then the irresponsible North Korean government uses the funds from its exploitation of citizens to finance a missile program.

It is estimated that North Korea deploys its forced labor mission in about 45 countries, including those in the European Union. This forced labor is at the heart of the 2018 World Cup preparations.

The work conditions are so bad that North Korean laborers often die on-site. However, neither spy police nor the army watches the laborers to prevent them from escaping.[7] This provides an opportunity for North Koreans to defect from the repressive regime.

3 North Korean Diplomatic Corps

Photo credit: The Telegraph

Like every other country, North Korea has a diplomatic corps as well as embassies in some foreign nations. Although North Korea tries to imitate successful countries, it is practically impossible for the hermit nation to hide its miserable state.

Embassy staff are so poorly paid that they are forced to buy secondhand office equipment.[8] The apparent lack of cash is believed to result from a North Korean directive that all embassies be self-financed whenever possible. In addition, North Korean officials have been arrested in certain countries for using their diplomatic status to commit crimes.

Although life in the North Korean diplomatic corps is harsh, it presents a great opportunity to escape from the homeland. Over the years, there have been numerous high-profile defections. For example, in 2016, a senior North Korean diplomat, his wife, and his children defected to South Korea from the United Kingdom. Years earlier, in 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt defected to the United States.

2 Air Koryo

North Korea has a state-owned airline called Air Koryo. Like almost everything offered by the country, except its missiles and nuclear weapons, Air Koryo is known for poor quality. It is the only one-star airline in the world.[9]

The poor rating comes from negative passenger reviews. Travelers on Air Koryo have complained about distant attendants, propaganda newspapers, and inedible food. Moreover, the airline flies limited routes. For example, Air Koryo is banned from flying over European Union airspace.

The list of negative reports about the airline is almost endless—from the use of old Soviet-era aircraft to the showing of North Korean propaganda movies to the unwilling passengers aboard flights. The airline also lacks the familiar perks of the civilized travel industry, such as frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and car rentals.

The only good thing about Air Koryo is that it presents an opportunity for North Korean citizens to defect. Although the airline only flies to and from countries that actively support the regime, there have been no reports of armed guards monitoring flight attendants or pilots.

1 Student Exchange Program

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A student exchange program allows North Korean students to study abroad and vice versa. On a yearly basis, several students leave China to study in North Korea. Although the country is not a popular destination for Chinese students, some adventurous ones opt to try it.

The good thing about the student exchange program[10] is that hardworking North Korean citizens can study abroad. It’s a win-win situation for the following reasons. Students who return to North Korea may use their new knowledge from advanced countries to alleviate the plight of the poor masses at home who cannot travel or leave. On the other hand, the student exchange program provides an opportunity to escape the clutches of the wicked regime.

Jeffrey Morris is a freelance writer with a passion for history, finance, and politics. You can hire him here.


fact checked by Jamie Frater